How coronavirus outbreak impacted Bengal’s human hair, crab export business
The deadly coronavirus has hit the human hair and crab export business in several districts of West Bengal after Chinese importers stopped coming to the state to book consignments following the outbreak of the disease.
Tonnes of human hair collected from villages and landfill sites in cities across the country by rag pickers reach Beldanga in Murshidabad district through agents and middlemen. It is cleaned and processed in the backyard industry before being exported to China where it is used to make wigs and hats.
“China used to be the only importer of this raw material from Murshidabad. Every year dozens of Chinese importers used to come to Beldanga. They used to buy various qualities of hairs,” said Milan Chowdhury, president of the Murshidabad hair traders’ association.
“But this year they haven’t come yet because of the virus scare and more so after the visa rules for Chinese nationals were tightened,” Chowdhury said.
Only long unbroken hair, uprooted during combing and are thrown away by women, are used in the industry. Small hair found in salons are not used. On the basis of their size and quality, a kilo of hair could cost anywhere between Rs 500 and Rs 10,000.
Traders said that more than 200,000 people across India, including around 50-odd exporters who run the cleaning and processing industries in the district, are directly and indirectly associated with this business.
Beldanga is known for its two industries—human hair export business and gold nose pin industry.
“But after the coronavirus outbreak, the industry has taken a nosedive. Chinese importers, who have failed to come, informed us that they don’t know when they will be able to come to India to collect the consignments,” said Md Piyar Ali, secretary of the traders’ association.
“As a result, a huge quantity of cleaned and processed hair is now dumped in our godowns. Some exporters have already started layoff,” Ali said.
Thousands work in the hair cleaning factories of Beldanga and earn between Rs 400 and Rs 500 every day. Many have lost jobs, traders said.
The agents, who collect the hair from across the country, aren’t aware of the situation and are still collecting them from remote villages and cities.
“I used to work in a hair factory. But I have no work for more than 20 days. I am now driving a Toto,” Sajuddin Sheikh, a resident of Kajishah village, said.
With the conditions worsening every day, traders like Chowdhury and Ali warned that if the export doesn’t resume within the next few days more people will lose their jobs. Thousands of local families may face problem to arrange even two square meals, they said.
The crisis has been brought to the notice of the district administration.
“We are aware of the situation. The higher-ups of the district administration have been intimated,” said Birupaksh Mitra, block development officer of Bendanga-I block.
Also hit is the crab export industry in the state’s coastal districts, exports from which are estimated to amount to Rs 50 crore.
The state fishery minister Chandranath Sinha said, “The export of prawns and crabs are entirely handled by the private sector. We don’t have any official data. But the crab export could be anywhere around Rs 50 crore”
West Bengal along with a few other coastal states, including Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, export huge quantities of Mud crab, also known as the Green crab or Mangrove Crab, mainly to southeast Asian countries.
The export goes up during the Chinese New Year as these crabs are considered delicacies.
“But as the coronavirus is said to have spread from a sea-food market, there has been a virtual lockdown of seafood markets in China since the outbreak,” an exporter from East Midnapore district, Tajmul Hussain, said.
“As a result, no Chinese importers are booking any consignments. The traders are facing huge losses,” he added.
The death toll from the coronavirus jumped to 813 on Sunday, overtaking the number of fatalities of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2002-03.
The virus was first reported in Wuhan, the capital of the worst-hit Hubei province, in December. Provincial health officials say the death toll is at 780 in Hubei province alone.